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Drive with dad stirs memory


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POSTED: Thursday, June 18, 2009

I drove out this morning and picked him up. It was a quiet ride. I did most of the talking. He didn't criticize my driving or suggest a better route. He wasn't preoccupied with a list of “;things to be done”; and “;things to worry about.”; We stopped at the Wendy's drive-through and parked under a tree while I had lunch. He didn't want anything. I remembered that some of the best times we ever had were in cars, including those diminutive English Fords he used in his route.

Back then he drove through various ethnic neighborhoods of Philly selling dresses, housewares and small luxuries to impoverished housewives on the installment plan. He knew every corner in our city of neighborhoods. And everybody knew my dad, albeit under a variety of “;street names.”; I remember “;Johnny the Dress Man.”;

Sometimes, like over winter break from school, I'd ride beside him, piled in with all the “;merchandise”; and all the notebooks, tools and empty soda bottles that made up his “;office.”; My schoolmates lived in a state of suburban ignorance, but I knew the grit, cobblestones, trolley tracks, corner “;tap rooms”; (bars/pubs), factories and older housing stock. I also knew that “;everyone”; was not Caucasian.

WHEN I GREW a little older, dad got up before dawn to deliver fresh-baked Italian rolls from the Amoroso factory. This was his transitional period. I remember riding in the big truck, and learning how heavy bread could be. “;I wake the birds up every morning,”; he said, and it was true.

Soon, though, a changing society saw America's cities burst into flaming summer race riots. It was a far cry from my Martha & The Vandellas “;Dancing in the Streets”; growing-up years.”; I was so proud that they sang “;Philadelphia, PA, now”; in the list of places where folks were “;dancin' in the streets!”; Now, we no longer felt safe in certain areas. Yo, Philly!

I'm very glad I knew that vanishing, blue-collar city of breweries and lunch buckets before the decay of the 1970s and subsequent gentrification changed my grandparent's red-brick city forever.

After delivering bread, dad had gotten into the janitorial business. Many were the exhausted, ultra-early morning or ultra-late at night rides we took through our sleeping city together, surrounded by our mops, rags and keys.

So today I ate “;street food”; in the car like we always did. Dad didn't mind. I thought of all these memories, and more. There was even a tear shed. Although the Hawaiian music station was playing on the radio like always, I seemed to hear doo-wop being sung by some kids on a corner somewhere. My dad, the poor kid from the streets of West Philly awoke his most recent mornings in sparkling Waikiki.

“;Not bad for two kids from the city!”; he'd tell mom.

Last fall, we watched the Phillies (complete with Hawaii player Shane Victorino) win the World Series from mom and dad's beach apartment.

Often, over the years, dad and I would stop to grab a bite to eat, as today. I thought of all those rides together as I ate: rides to school, to hospitals, “;down the shore”; and even college visits. There were tense rides, and fun rides. Today I had my last ride with dad, bringing his ashes home to mom and to Waikiki ... he loved them both.